80, an artist from Corrales, N.M., on his 1954 International Harvester R-120 pickup, as told to A.J. Baime.
In 2009 I was living in Westcliffe, Colo., a town so small the whole population could fit on a 747. Driving home I used to pass this crapped-out pickup with a “for sale” sign, sitting in a field. I finally called the number and agreed to a price on one condition: The owner could drive the truck to my ranch, which was up nasty roads at 9,000 feet elevation. The truck made the trip, so I wrote a check for $1,700.
I admit: I am not a smart man. A smart man would have bought an old Ford or Chevy. Finding parts so I could restore this International Harvester was exceedingly difficult, but it became my obsession.
Photos: A Classic Pickup Rides Again
A New Mexico artist shows off a 1954 International Harvester truck whose spare parts were hard to come by
To do the work, I partnered with the guy in my small town who did all the maintenance on local school buses. I remember calling a guy in Colorado who supposedly had a 1954 R-120 bumper. He said, “You’ll have to wait until the snow melts. I think there’s one lying in my field.” After nearly two years, the job was done, and I used the truck to do what it was born to do: hard work.
Most people today have never heard of International Harvester, but for a large part of the 20th century, it was probably the brand for ranch and farm equipment in the Midwest, and the company made pickups, too. [According to a 1953 Wall Street Journal article, International Harvester was the third-biggest producer of pickup trucks that year, behind Chevrolet and Ford.] Until it hit hard times in the 1980s, International Harvester was one of the brands that helped make this country what it is today.
My truck has its original straight-six engine. It has something called a granny low—a first gear that moves the vehicle about 3 mph, walking speed, so you can get out of the truck and it’ll move along by itself while you are, say, loading the bed with hay. It also has tremendous torque, so it can pull stumps out of the ground.
I have since moved from Colorado, and the vehicle is no longer a work truck. I use it to drive my grandkids through the desert, along the Rio Grande. The truck was built the year I graduated high school, and it is certainly a step back in time.
—Contact A.J. Baime at Facebook.com/ajbaime.
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